Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010
Why a New Translation of the New Testament?
by Willis Barnstone
The first translation of the New Testament directly from the Greek into English was made by William Tyndale in 1526 to bring holy scripture to the people. Before Tyndale only the Latin Vulgate was permitted, thereby limiting its reading mainly to the Latin-educated clergy. For flouting the English bishopric, in 1536 Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in Antwerp, where he was hiding. Tyndale did his fresh version so that, citing his Dutch model Erasmus, "the word of the gospels should reach the eyes of all women, Scots and Irishmen, even Turks and Saracens, and especially the farm worker at the plow and the weaver at the loom." As the Protestant Reformation took hold, soon there was a flood of new translations into the European vernaculars, and especially into English.
Why the new translations? As religious sects diversify and change, so too do literary conventions for making speech contemporary and natural. Hence, each age and major denomination has demanded a new English version of the Bible. The King James Version (1611) had its literary and spiritual aims, which appear in beautiful metaphor in the first line of the prefatory: "Translators to the Reader: Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light."As a Greek scholar, I undertook a new translation of the New Testament (The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas) to give a chastely modern, literary version of a major world text. I translated as verse what is verse in the New Testament, as in Yeshua's speech (Yeshua was probably Jesus's name in his lifetime), the authentic Paul letters, and the epic poem of Apocalypse, following a practice that has prevailed in lineating Hebrew poetry as poetry (as in the Song of Songs, Psalms, Job, and the Prophets) since the nineteenth-century Scrivener Cambridge Bible (1873).
On all questions of faith versus fact, I take a neutral stance and address them in the annotations. As far as possible, I limit these matters to indicating a historical context of biblical happenings, always with the awareness that more is unknown than known. (Events recounted in the gospels are essentially theologically framed accounts confined to the gospels themselves, with no confirming external documentary evidence. The few references to Jesus outside of the gospels tell us little and are problematic with respect to historicity.) As to denominations -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim -- while respecting all views, I have no pitch for any camp. I hope this "bible as literature" version will appeal to those who want to read the finest examples of ancient story, myth, letter, and the surreal poetry of Apocalypse. There is no more polemic or proselytizing here than were this book a new version of the Odyssey or of Sappho's fragments. And I hope they will elicit love for these extraordinary world scriptures as well as sadness and dismay before the unrelenting pursuit of hatred for Jesus's coreligionists, the Jews.
Jesus the Jew
As a secular Jew aware of the tragic historical fate of Jews at the hands of Christians incited by the New Testament, I present ideas that may radically alter popular reception of scripture and profoundly diminish its inherent anti-Judaism. My new translation makes clear that Christianity is the child of Judaism, having its first-century origin in Jerusalem as one of the diverse Jewish messianic sects vying for domination.
In our day some Christian theologians speak of Jesus as a Jew. In the past, almost no one did. Can anyone read Plato's Republic and not realize he was a Greek? No. Why should the ethnic and religious identity of the central figure in the emerging sect be concealed? The Jews are on each page, yet always portrayed as the evil opponents of a deracinated Jesus who has neither ethnicity nor religion. Hence, for two millennia the identity of Jesus, the later acclaimed messiah, the central figure in the New Testament, has remained obscure. Even the rabidly efficient Gestapo -- which unmasked and condemned Jewish composers such as Mendelssohn, poets such as Heine, and philosophers such as Spinoza -- never condemned Jesus, the most famous Jew in history. Neither did they jail or execute any of the Christian clergy and parishioners for following the creed of this errant Jew from Galilee. Jesus passed. By a rhetorical but illogical twist in dramatic plot, by making every wicked character a Jew, Jesus and company suddenly cease to be Jews. Though the gospels and letters are texts written by, for, and about Jews, the biblical figures' Semitic identity is concealed, including that of the Samaritans, one of the diverse Jewish sects. Was Jesus not circumcised on the eighth day? (Luke 2:21). Did a roving rabbi called Yeshua (Joshua in King James Version English) not teach in the temples?
Something is hugely wrong. But examine the Greek text and the hoax becomes clear. A reasonable reading of the Greek, one would think, should reveal that Jesus was a Jew. Jesus is addressed as "rabbi" sixteen times in the gospels. In the Greek scripture his epithet is "rabbi," but not in its English translation, nor in other tongues. The cover-up in the translation, or, more properly, the identity theft, is seamless. While the Greek reads, "And Peter said to Jesus, Rabbi, it is good that we are here" the King James Version of Mark 9:5 falsifies the meaning, rendering, "And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, is it good for us to be here." In other translations, "rabbi" is regularly "lord," "master," "teacher," or "sir." But not "rabbi." By a deliberate forging of the translation, Jesus's religion and ethnicity are obscured. Were his religious and ethnic identity clear, the traditional understanding of scripture would be radically different, and the demonization of selective Jews suspect. Had even one world authority in the past forcefully objected, the history of discrimination, expulsion, and slaughter might have taken a different turn, and the ancient rabbi Jesus might have been celebrated as the crucified rabbi of later Christianity. So too Peter, Andrew, Paul, and Matthew, his fellow coreligionists, might have been seen as celebrated Jewish figures. Such a reading is not radical but common sense.
As a result of the belligerently anti-Jewish gospels and church, bolstered by popular mistranslation and misreading, Yeshua's Jewish identity has eluded virtually all readers, and this illusion has remained dominant at the center of Christian reception of the New Testament. Some contemporary scholars and informed readers today know better, but the anachronistic portrayal of Yeshua and his circle as later Christians among enemy Jews permits an unquestioned abhorrence of the Jew and is a logical, understandable, and inevitable reading of the New Testament as we have it. So the anomaly persists of loving Yeshua and despising his people, the religion he practiced, and the Jewish Bible that was his unique guiding scripture and also the foundation book for all Christians.
The Gospels' Drama: Jesus vs. the Jews
The reader need not be a biblical scholar to notice something awry when Yeshua, a Jew, speaks in the voice of a later gentile admonishing Jews of terrible punishment when Rome, four decades after Yeshua's death, will destroy Jerusalem. In the Jewish War (66-70), the city and temple were razed; its vast library, comparable to the Greek libraries in Pergamon and Alexandria, burned; thousands and thousands crucified; and Jews and Christian Jews expelled from the city. This horror -- for Jews, Christian Jews, Jerusalem, and history -- Yeshua tells us, is deserved and appropriate. No one -- man, woman, or child, he warns -- will be able to hide in forest or mountain from the apocalypse of punishment and death.
As the gospels, through the voice of Rabbi Jesus, tell of eternal punishments of the Jews for not recognizing that he is their foretold messiah, we soon realize there are only two major contending characters in the gospels: Jesus and the collective Jews. Jesus is the good; the Jews are the bad. As for God, in contrast to God's character in the Hebrew Bible, where God speaks and appears in whirlwinds, God in the New Testament is absent. He utters no word, no idea or command, and he remains unseen. Others speak for and through God. Mary makes quick entrances at the beginning. Then disappears. As for the disciples, they are also minor and for the most part treated as doubting bunglers ever being corrected by Jesus for mistakes, weakness, and vanity.
Peter, a Polonius figure, is more developed as an unreliable disciple (or "student" as the Greek reads) whom Jesus reprimands when he hopes to have a favored seat next to God and Jesus in heaven. In the end, as Jesus predicts, Peter denies Jesus in his time of peril three times before the cock crows. The divinity figure is Jesus, ambiguously, since he is also a man. The drama of the cross occurs because Jesus suffers as a man, with no apparent awareness of being divine. He implores God not to forsake him (Palms 21:1) and gives up the ghost in despair at his abandonment. Jesus, not God, is the singular character. He is everywhere, in virtually every scene. In Matthew, Luke, and John, he carries on after his death, walking the roads of Judea, again testing his incredulous disciples.
Jesus is the god of the New Testament. His enemies, on virtually every page, are the forces of evil, the malicious Jews, the other main character. They are his foil. They question him. He answers with contempt. He takes the whip to them in the Temple. The Passion is the tragic culmination during which Romans, implausibly egged on by the collective Jews in the street, shout their own villainy -- "his blood be upon us and upon our children" (Matt. 27:25) -- and hence their forever tribal condemnation on earth. Ironically, the good Roman centurion who has just crucified Jesus becomes the first human to recognize his divinity and that he has risen. Another gift to the later Roman Catholic Church. Like a deus ex machina figure in Greek drama who is saved at the last instant, Jesus is rescued though the divine intervention of the resurrection. The Jewish conspiracy to end the work of Jesus has failed. The Jews are left to wander as the accursed people through all generations.
In these fearful contradictions of good and evil the Jews are accused of murdering their fathers and their prophets, killing Jesus, and, most serious of all, deicide (murdering God). The latter is absurd if God is God and goes on being God. This relentless calumny has led contemporary theologians to make corrective comments. In Meeting Jesus for the First Time, the Christian theologian Marcus J. Borg corrects at all levels:
Jesus was deeply Jewish. It is important to emphasize this obvious fact. Not only was he Jewish by birth and socialization, but he remained a Jew all of his life. His Scripture was the Jewish Bible. He did not intend to establish a new religion, but saw himself as having a mission within Judaism. He spoke as a Jew to other Jews. His early followers were Jewish. All of the authors of the New Testament (with the possible exception of the author of Luke-Acts) were Jewish.
Though I find it hard to believe, some Christians are apparently unaware of the Jewishness of Jesus, or, if they are aware, do not give it much weight. Moreover, Christians have frequently been guilty of conscious or unconscious anti-Semitism, identifying Jesus with Christianity and his opponents with Judaism, and thereby seeing Jesus and the early Christian movement as anti-Jewish....
The separation of Jesus from Judaism has had tragic consequences for Jews throughout the centuries. The separation is also historically incorrect, and any faithful image of Jesus must take with utmost seriousness his rootedness in Judaism.
These are ecumenical days, calming old furies of division. In her book The Bible: A Biography, former nun and religion historian Karen Armstrong writes: "A thread of hatred runs through the New Testament. It is inaccurate to call the Christian scriptures anti-Semitic, as the authors were themselves Jewish." She is right to state that the authors were themselves Jewish, but the texts, as we have them, remain deeply and pervasively anti-Semitic. More, while Armstrong asserts that Jesus, his family, and followers are Jews, the texts conceal this essential information from the normal reader, enabling a deceptive presentation. The scriptures are anti-Judaic just because Jews are falsely slammed in "words" that "for centuries inspired the pogroms that made persecution of Jews an incurable disease in Europe."
I address this dire and central question of disenfranchising Yeshua of his religious identity in two ways: by restoring the probable Hebrew or Aramaic names to biblical figures and framing anti-Semitic passages in a historical context in the introduction and abundant textual annotation.
Why I Use the Ethnically Appropriate Names
To clarify ethnic identity, I have restored the probable Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew names of all personages, of Yeshua (Jesus), his family, and followers. Hence, we will not see Peter, Paul, and Mary performing in Jerusalem but Shimon Kefa, Shaul, and Miryam acting their parts in Yerushalayim. We will know that the tale of Jesus occurs in the Near East, with no ties to Europe other than that the Kingdom of Judaea (Israel) was occupied by the Romans. We will know that Pilate, a Roman tetrarch, ordered Jesus's death, and his Roman centurion and soldiers crucified a Jewish messiah. The English name Jesus is from the Greek (transliterated as Iesous), from the Aramaic (Yeshua), which was a later form of the Hebrew (Yehoshua).
A few historical notes. Although the extant gospels are in Greek and Yeshua speaks Greek in the gospels, Yeshua did not use Greek as his everyday language, if indeed he had any knowledge of it. His language was Aramaic. On the cross Yeshua cried out his forsaken state to God in Aramaic, a Semitic language close to Hebrew. As the lingua franca of the greater Mesopotamian region, Aramaic had by and large become the spoken language of the Jews after their return to Israel from the Babylonian defeat (538 bce). Hebrew remained the language of the temple and religion. Yet we have Greek, not Aramaic, names for the Jews. Yohanan becomes John (though the Germans retain the Hebrew as in Johann Sebastian Bach). Somehow Yaakov or Jacob in the Hebrew Bible becomes James in English and Miryam becomes Greek María. When the Hebrew and Aramaic names of these figures are recovered, the Semitic origin and climate at last surface in the gospels and may ameliorate the confusing and relentless fury of anti-Judaism. As the Homeric names Zeus, Athena, and Artemis are finally heard in twentieth-century translations and no longer romanized as Jupiter, Minerva, and Diana, so too the Jewish names of Yaakov, Yeshua, Yosef, and Yohanan are used here rather than their irrelevant and misleading Greek or anglicized forms, James, Jesus, Joseph and John.
Any change in standard orthography takes a while, but, like a new currency it is quickly absorbed and accepted. This restoration does wonders to afford a truthful perception of the identity of New Testament peoples. It will help us recall, as Bishop John Shelby Spong among others has observed, that the New Testament was originally a Jewish document written for contemporary Jews and no one else. Though largely unread by Jews, it remains the last major Jewish text of biblical Judaism, the parent religion of Christianity and Islam.
The Gospels Portray an Intra-Jewish Conflict as an Anti-Jewish Conflict
I have also worked against traditional anti-Judaism in my historic introduction and annotations, which contain the philology of each proper noun in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. In many ways the inflated rhetoric may be seen as a result of interfamily rival sects within Judaism, each seeking dominion during Yeshua's life. Yet missing from that early scenario is that by the time we receive them in present form, the rival sects have been depicted as salvific Christians and hell-bent Jews.
The gospels were not fashioned in Greek until late in the first and early second centuries, with many unknown hands copying, redacting, and emending the stories and recreating conversations as they wished the politic to be. The authors must have had access to Sherlock Holmes-style magic to record the secret deliberations that allegedly took place behind the walls of the Sanhedrin. By the time these texts were finally accepted by religious councils in the fourth century, what had been a first-century controversy between Jewish groups, between Pharisees and messianics, was now seen ahistorically as a conflict between Jews and later Christians, "Christian" being the word "messianic" or "messianist" in Greek translation. By then, in name and thought, Christianity was politically separated from Judaism, though it retained the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) as its own Christianized Bible, to which it added the Jewish scriptures of the New Testament.
There is enormous, sad irony in these separations and conflicts based on misunderstandings and contentions of power. Jews and Christians share one Hebrew Bible. Christians read the last great biblical document of the Jews, the New Testament, composed by Jews for the emerging sect of messianic (Christian) Jews. With so much vitally in common in terms of people and philosophies, and believers sharing the same invisible God, why such division and history of hostility? Yet this initial rivalry between Jew and Christian Jew, and in the next century between Jew and Christian, was to be repeated again and again in the inevitable schisms and sectarian wars within Christianity.
Trumped-Up Passion Story and Passover Plot
The key element in the Passion story is the Sanhedrin conspiracy. We know nothing about what might have happened that night. Who was there to record the conversations? This one was invented by the evangelists at least forty years after the happening. Historically, we know that leading members of the Sanhedrin were enlightened, headed by Rabbi Gamaliel, Hillel's grandson and the beloved teacher of Saint Paul, who was also a Pharisee. So esteemed was Gamaliel by later Christians that he was incorrectly said to have converted to Christianity; and as the stories concerning his kindness to Christians grew, he was declared a saint by public acclaim in Roman martyrology. After 1900 years of sainthood, in 1956 his status, still in highest esteem, was put on hold for further investigation. So much for the head of the Sanhedrin and his assembly that was supposed to have plotted the death of Jesus.
Who can believe that a Jewish mob on the first night of Passover is in the street shouting to a reluctant prefect, "Crucify him!" followed by "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children"? Would anybody shout a curse upon themselves and their children? The notion is silly but noxious and has followed the Jews for two millennia. The curse is selectively applied in that it has exempted Yeshua and his followers, who at this critical moment escape the epithet of Jew and the collective religious and racial curse. At the instant before his death, Yeshua cries out to God his despair of abandonment in Aramaic, his own tongue. At this supreme moment -- the moment of Yeshua's death as a tortured Jewish man dying by Roman crucifixion -- he may be "King of the Jews" in Roman mockery, but to the evangelists and future followers he is seen as the Christian God, not the Jewish mashiah (messiah). Moreover, by inventing a scene of mass Jewish guilt that he as a Jew notably does not share, Yeshua at once ceases to be perceived as a Jew. He is defrocked. He is stripped of his robes of faith and tradition as a messianic Jew preaching redemption.
In character with recent historical criticism on killing the man Yeshua, William Nicholls writes in Christian Anti-Semitism: A History of Hate:
Did the Jews kill Christ? We shall discover that the stories in the Gospels that suggest they did are exceedingly improbable. The Jews did not kill Jesus because they had no reason to do so. He was not guilty of any religious offense. It is in the highest degree improbable that such a trial before the Sanhedrin as we read of in the gospels of Mark and Matthew ever took place. What we read in the gospels about the trial of Jesus is the project of later Christian imagination, and it reflects Christian, not Jewish, views of the nature of the Messiah.
As a summary of the crucial questions of the Passion that have haunted the Jews, I cite two powerful and succinct paragraphs from the chapter on Judas from John Shelby Spong's Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes: "Judas Iscariot: A Christian Invention?" After twenty pages of detailing incongruities in the betrayal story and indicating the source of the spurious betrayal story in Midrashic scripture, Spong concludes:
I only want to register now that it is a tragedy of enormous dimensions that, by the time the story of Jesus' arrest and execution came to be written, the Christians made the Jews, rather than the Romans, the villains of their story. I suggest that this was achieved primarily by creating the narrative of a Jewish traitor according to the Midrashic tradition out of the bits and pieces of the sacred scriptures and by giving that traitor the name Judas, the very name of the nation of the Jews. As a result, from that day to this, the blame for the death of Jesus has been laid on the backs, not just of Judas, the Jewish prototype, but of the entire people of the Jews themselves. "His blood be upon us and upon our children." That was a biblical sentence of death to untold numbers of Jews.
I raise this possibility to consciousness in the hope that as you and I are awakened to the realization of what this story of Judas has done to the Jews of history, we Christians might rise up and deal a death blow to the most virulent Christian prejudice that has for 2,000 years placed on the Jewish people the blame for the death of Jesus. If that result could be achieved, then the darkest clouds that have hung over the Christian Church in our history might finally begin to lift (Liberating the Gospels, 276).
To Bishop Spong's lucid words, I add a few thoughts. Those who were messianics close to Yeshua were still decades away from being referred to in Greek as Christians. Yeshua, his family, and his followers were Jews, not strangers from another solar system. Since the Passion tales in the four gospels declared all Jews forever guilty of a horrible crime, Yeshua and the early saints, all Jews, must share this ignominy of hate. If only the true identity of the actors in these scenes that shaped worlds were commonly known, the scaffolding of anti-Judaism would collapse.
Let Us Reverse the Identity Theft and Speak Only of Yeshua
Frank Kermode in the July 15 New York Review of Books notes my "untraditional and adventurous" translations. I suggest that while compared to other versions the Restored New Testament is not traditional, I hope my new version may be seen as traditional in a larger domain of understanding ancient literatures and may become a traditional model for later biblical versions. The new versions should hold to the premise of restoring the original Semitic names to proper nouns of person and place.
In a true way traditional versions break common law. Their concealment of the Jewish identity of Jesus, family, followers, and early saints is a legal felony of identity theft. It is ironic that "scriptures of love" incite the killing of "the unfaithful." I wonder how the cruel dishonesty in casting the biblical players has not been commonly apparent to fair readers and theologians. The great traditional readings and translations, however beautiful, the King James Version and Tyndale remain suspect aberrations of disguise. We all wish for a grander peace amid all faiths. Such peace will come with knowledge as well as goodwill, but without knowledge good spirits are doomed. My common dream is that beauty and knowledge, not anger, infuse each precinct of religion. As for those who hear scripture as musical literature, I wish that the note in these scriptures in English be close to the original song chanted in Greek Orthodox churches.
There is a plain lesson in all this. In the end all people are people, and no people should ever be classified for whatever reason as less than another. Any marker of sect and theology that targets a people adversely is unfriendly error. So the gospels and Apocalypse should not be seen for the momentary and external conflicts they may contain but for their greater universality of spirit in a world desperately poor in coming to terms with human consciousness within the perishable body. Happily, the call to spirit is deep and needs no name and no divisive emblem. The New Testament is a book of the mind; it is infused with compassion and courage and the great questions of being, death, time, and eternity. Luke's "Parable of the Lost Son" and Paul's discourse on love in Corinthians 1:13 remain at the summit of literary creation. Yes, the New Testament maltreats an entire people. At the same time, the amazing human spirit that pervades the books eludes name, dogma, and even word to reside in the silence of transcendence.
Willis Barnstone is a writer of comparative literature, biblical studies, and poetry, as well as a translator. A Guggenheim Fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry, Barnstone is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University.
Source Citation: Barnstone, Willis. 2010. Why a New Translation of the New Testament? Tikkun 25(5) 31